KATHMANDU, Jan 1: The past year was eventful in a number of ways. The year was marked by the government’s attempt to muzzle the press and curtail freedom of expression, by major scandals involving top officials, high-profile visits of foreign dignitaries, inter and intra-party political conflicts, and controversies surrounding a new political map released by India and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Some major calamities like the tarai tornado, the death of important political figures, controversy surrounding Yeti Holdings and the property of the Nepal Trust, the involvement of foreigners in the crime scene, and the successful hosting of the South Asian Games (SAG) also dominated media space in 2019.
The year began with the government registering its controversial Advertisement Bill (on January 8). It proposed up to one year in jail for media owners for advertising-related offenses. Again on February 14, the government registered a controversial Information Technology Bill at parliament. The Bill aimed at regulating social media courted controversy for proposing harsh punishment of five years in jail and up to Rs 1.5 million fine or both just for social media posts.
The government also registered the controversial Media Council Bill on May 10, proposing up to Rs 1 million in penalties against journalists through a state-controlled media council for publishing content in violation of the media code of ethics.
Amid growing apprehension that the government was bent on curtailing the freedom of expression, popular singer Pashupati Sharma was forced remove a satirical song against the government on February 17 from Youtube.
The arrest of rapper VTEN aka Samir Ghising over the use of vulgar lyrics on October 25 raised serious concern about the state of press freedom and freedom of expression. Freedom Forum--a press freedom advocacy organization-- said as many as 111 cases of press freedom violation were reported in 2019.
The year 2019 was important also for some major scandals involving high-profile politicians. Most important of these was the one involving House of Representatives Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara. He was forced to resign on October 1 after a rape attempt case was brought against him by a staffer at the parliament secretariat. Mahara was arrested and subsequently presented before Kathmandu District Court on October 6. The court refused him bail and sent him to prison pending a final verdict.
Barely two weeks after the Mahara case, former minister and incumbent lawmaker Aftab Alam was arrested on October 13 in connection with a mass murder involving the gruesome use of a brick kiln in his home district Rautahat on the eve of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) election back in 2008. Earlier in February, a CIAA commissioner, Raj Narayan Pathak, was forced to step down following disclosure of his involvement in a bribery case. Similarly, Minister for Physical Infrastructure of Karnali Province Khadga Bahadur Khatri lost his job over a banking fraud charge.
The Lalita Niwas land grab hogged the headlines for months in 2019 after it emerged that then prime ministers Madhav Nepal and Baburam Bhattarai were involved in controversial policy decisions that paved the way for transferring government land to private ownership. Ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) General Secretary and former minister Bishnu Paudel was also in the thick of the controversy as a member of his family had purchased a piece of Lalita Niwas real estate.
On the international relations front, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping on October 12-13, the first by a Chinese head of state after a gap of 23 years, was an important achievement. Another high-profile visit to Nepal was made by Bangladeshi President Abdul Hamid on November 12.
In domestic politics, a major achievement was the 11-point agreement signed by the government and CK Raut’s Alliance for Independent Madhes. It opened the way for the Raut-led group to join mainstream politics. Another important development was the decision of the Upendra Yadav-led Samajbadi Party to quit the government over the constitution amendment row, leaving the ruling party with less than a two-third majority in parliament. However, the growing bonhomie between the NCP and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal towards the end of 2019 indicated a new political equation in 2020.
The health of Prime Minister K P Oli was another important issue that hogged media headlines almost throughout the year. Oli’s health condition became a major issue in politics right from the time he went to Singapore to gauge the possibility of a kidney transplant. The prime minister underwent emergency surgery for appendicitis on November 26, weeks after commencing a kidney dialysis regime.
The year 2019 was also important to remember because of the increasing instance of untoward deaths, including that of then tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari. Seven high profile individuals including Adhikari died in a tragic helicopter crash in Taplejung district on February 27. As if this was a bad omen, the number of people killed in accidents, mostly road accidents, rose exponentially during 2019. This forced the government to wake up to the need for road safety measures. A tornado, a rare phenomenon in Nepal, ravaged parts of Bara and Parsa districts on April 1, killing 28 and injuring scores.
The year also witnessed some record breaking in mountaineering and some downside. While renowned Nepali mountaineer Kami Rita Sherpa made a history scaling Mount Everest for a 24th time and besting his own record on May 21. Everest came into the global limelight over reports about an unprecedented traffic jam near its peak. Nine climbers were killed on the Nepal side of the mountain this past year. The most important event among all these was the record set by another Nepali climber, Nirmal Purja, on October 30. He scale all the world’s 14 peaks above 8,000 meters within a span of barely six months.
On the crime front there was the involvement of Chinese nationals in hacking ATM machines and stealing money and the arrest of over 100 Chinese in Kathmandu in connection with various other crimes.
Controversy erupted over a new political map of India released by Delhi in early November, showing some Nepali territory including Kalapani on the Indian side of the border.
There was sharp division in the ruling NCP whether to endorse the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) through parliament. Nepal has proposed settling the issue of Kalapani through diplomatic means although any formal negotiation between the two countries is yet to take place. The prospects for the MCC continue to be uncertain.
Although the year was full of ups and downs and controversies aplenty, it ended with a positive note with the success of the 13th South Asian Games despite misgivings till the eleventh hour. Nepal put in a sterling performance, bagging a total 206 medals including 51 gold. SAG not just boosted national confidence but also sent out a positive message across the world on the eve of Visit Nepal 2020 that Nepal is a peaceful and stable country. How this will impact Visit Nepal which kicks in Wednesday remains to be seen.